There is no such thing as too Instagrammable, says St-W Awards jury Joe Cheng

Hong Kong – In the past few years, here at the St-W editorial team we’ve developed a country-specific type of fact-checking – we call it ‘China checking.’ Almost without fail, every time we run an article on a new hospitality project in a tier-one or tier-two city in the country, we have to go back and thoroughly confirm its use and purpose with the designers. Most times, it’s a service completely new to our western eyes, the result of combining China’s unmatched speed in consumer demand and a set of unpredictably evolving idiosyncratic elements.

That’s where experts such as Joe Cheng come in. For more than two decades, the founder of Cheng Chung Design has been an active witness to the evolution of the Chinese hospitality industry, with projects for Hilton, Sheraton, Marriott and Sofitel . Cheng brings his sharp experience to the panel of juries of the Hospitality category of the F, which will take place this February here in Amsterdam.

In the meantime, we asked him: Will China be influencing the rest of the world by creating new hospitality categories? And what can designers do to prevent death by social media?

Do you think a hotel, a bar or a restaurant can be too Instagrammable or Weibo-able? Can we now speak of the death-by-social-media of hospitality spaces? Or is high-visibility always a boon in today’s landscape?
JOE CHENG: No – nothing can be called too Instagrammable. People want to Instagram places because either they like the design, the product or the atmosphere.

For example, many people know the Grand Hyatt Shenzhen because of its 1881 Chinese restaurant, and they know the Hyatt Regency Shenzhen Airport because of its Xiangyue Chinese restaurant. Some people may worry about how too many customers could have a negative impact on a business operation. Generally, a five-star hotel restaurant provides limited seats and uses a reservation system, so that the number of customers will not exceed 100. Furthermore, the threat of oversaturation can be solved in the early planning stage, having the restaurant separated from lobby lounge in the circulation design.

However, there have definitely been some failures on that side, mostly due to operational and managerial problems. For instance, people love Michelin-starred restaurants, but a lot of them close down due to too much exposure. Unless the manager controls the reservation system, an increase in sales might sometimes mean a decrease in service and food quality. So, in reality, nothing is wrong with a hospitality space that’s too photogenic. After all, design is about positioning, packaging and presentation. In these connected times, everyone acts as a disseminator. It’s not our original purpose as designers to make a hotel social-media-friendly, but it does expand the hotel’s influence. Therefore, it’s acceptable that our work becomes Instagrammable. But that also means that we as designers need to be held accountable: we must anticipate the effects of passenger flow on a hotel operation or its management after this exposure, and adjust circulation design as early as possible.

Designers need to be held accountable for the operational impact of Instagram exposure

From top to bottom: the Hyatt Regency Shenzhen Airport, the Diaoyutai Hotel Hangzhou (central images) and the HUALUXE Xi'an Hi-tech Zone

The five hospitality sub-categories we have at the St-W Awards are relatively straightforward, but some, particularly in the entertainment and restaurant fields, seem to defy typology in China. In the past year alone we’ve seen clinics that double as cafes and bakeries that double as classrooms. Why are we seeing so much experimentation and hyper-segmentation in the country, at a rate that doesn’t happen in other large markets?
I think it’s because Chinese lifestyles have rapidly changed, and people desire a better quality of life. For example, there are different types of clinics, and some of them have introduced advanced equipments and medical tech, while others adopt traditional Chinese medicine, such as manual physiotherapy. Thus, people who visit these centres may just want to lead a healthier life or have a better personal image instead of going for an emergency treatment. So it’s a kind of pleasant experience, where several friends can go together to get – so many add a café for these groups of people to socialize and relax.

So, for example, you mention these mixed bakeries: we all know that a bakery needs a very clean, quiet and warm environment, which also happens to be auspicious for reading and thinking. So apart from a gathering place and a spot to grab refreshments, these bakeries also offer specialised classes, which provide visitors with an opportunity to study and share. Moreover, here’s an idiosyncratic component: Chinese people realize and believe that lifelong learning is the way to achieve sustainable development. Any type of training that can improve professional skills, and thus quality of life, are booming – there’s a surge in painting classes, calligraphy classes and flower arrangement workshops.

Generally, a multi-functional space can achieve high efficiency in terms of spatial use, and those functions then have the added effect of increasing the number of customers. It’s a win-win situation. As China is a fast-growing and vibrant market, it’s not surprising that people seek both convenience and efficiency.

From top to bottom: the Sheraton Shenzhen Nanshan (top images), the Shenzhen Marriott Hotel Nanshan and the Louvre Sofitel in Foshan

Throughout your work, you’ve had the pulse on the most attractive ratio between Chinese and western in terms of concept and execution for your projects, particularly hotels. But now as more consumers in the country prefer local brands, and LVMH made a knockout statement about investing in , I have to ask: Do you think the proportions have changed in the past two to three years? Are local consumers more interested in exploring their own Chinese roots in spatial design, as opposed to more westernized offerings?
With closer cultural exchanges between China and the West, it’s obvious that people are now used to the integration of different cultures in their daily lives. Customers start to understand the charm of oriental culture from a flood of excellent Chinese design works, and are inspired to develop their interests in it. At the same time, the Western culture and products are also welcomed by some people here. As the saying goes, ‘to each their own.’

Given that situation, many of our projects highlight the aesthetics of blending the local culture with an international language. Since we are influenced by Chinese culture since birth, the way of thinking is different from people in the West. At the Diaoyutai Hotel Hangzhou, for example, we started from the traditional Chinese mansion concept, where we hope guests can enjoy the highly elegant environment, and referenced the traditional Chinese courtyard and garden to create a layered sense of space in the vertical axis.

But China is no monolith. As the country boasts a richly diverse culture in such a large territory, the expression of hospitality in design varies from region to region. Take, for example the hotel we just did for IHG, the HUALUXE Xi'an Hi-tech Zone. Unlike the Jiangnan-style design in Hangzhou, HUALUXE Xi'an Hi-tech Zone is designed to highlight the grand and magnificent charm of the Tang Dynasty by using a symmetrical way of design and traditional elements like beams, columns and Dougong.

Here’s an idiosyncratic component: Chinese people believe that lifelong learning is the way to achieve sustainable development

Do you think there are public spaces that we’re not utilizing to their full potential as hospitality spaces? For example, a lot has been said about the comfort and personalization of airport hallways and semi-private lounges.
Certainly, there are some public spaces that can be further utilised. For instance, take the concept of sharing resources that prevails nowadays. Based on that, we proposed the all-day-dining restaurant next to the lobby in the Sheraton Shenzhen Nanshan, which could share the kitchen and staff. In this way, it could not only reduce running costs, but also provide a cosy environment for guests even at rush hour, because they can have their breakfast at the empty space in the lobby.

Or there’s the Louvre Sofitel Hotel in Foshan, which combines a hotel with an international furniture expo centre. The hollow lobby lounge offers the guests a double experience: from one side, people can see the outdoor western-style garden on the same floor, and from the other, they can look down at the furniture exhibition hall. Meanwhile, the lobby of the banquet hall forms a magnificent interior space with a three-storey-high vertical green wall joining the outdoor garden, while the outdoor garden also connects the water bar at the lobby of banquet hall – and that creates a spacious place for outdoor weddings and other demands.

So given all of this, which sub-categories do you think we’ll have to add to our Hospitality awards in the next five years?
Given the fast diversification of consumer demands, not just in China, I think there will be more specific categories in the future, such as parent-child hotels, smart hotels, fully green hotels and so on. And I truly believe those sub-categories will lead design trends in the next five years.

Joe Cheng is one of our five jury members in the Hospitality category at the 2020 St-W Awards. Are you interested in submitting your bar, restaurant, hotel, entertainment venue or health club? ; the deadline is 15 October.

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